Like all of England at the time, the village of Eyam is an intensely patriarchal community. The values and customs of the community and the men who are in charge of it restrict women’s personal agency and their ability to participate in public life independently of male family members. Female sexuality is particularly frightening and taboo, and social punishments for women deemed sexually transgressive are high. However, despite social restrictions, important female characters like Anna and Anys embrace their sexuality, and in doing so find both personal fulfillment and a sense of power denied to them by their patriarchal community. Moreover, this change helps these characters deepen their relationships with other women and clarify their understanding of themselves.
Through institutionalized customs and personal actions, the community polices and punishes any displays of female agency, from independent thought to the expression of sexuality. In one of Anna’s earliest memories, her father, Joss, angry that her mother chastised him publicly, parades his wife through town in the “branks,” a torture device like a muzzle that prevents its wearer from speaking. The branks was used specifically for women designated as “scolds” by the community, and its existence shows just how anxious the community was about the possibility that women might step out of their place. Harming the body and limiting the possibility of speech, the branks is a visceral expression of male dominance over the female body and mind. Even Michael Mompellion, who is comparatively progressive when it comes to other social issues, is frightened to the point of fanaticism by female sexuality. He objects to the use of public punishments like the stocks and hopes to lead by kindness rather than fear, but when he discovers Jane Martin drunk and having sex with Albion Samweys, he flies into a rage and excoriates her as a “sinner.” Later, Anna discovers that, because Mompellion’s wife Elinor had extramarital sex and ended the resulting pregnancy with a self-induced abortion, he has refused to sleep with her for years in order to punish her for her sins. In Mompellion’s eyes, Elinor has acted independently twice and thus sinned doubly: first by having sex for pleasure, and secondly by rejecting motherhood, which is supposed to be the only reason women have sex. His drastic attempt to quell his wife’s sexuality shows that even progressives are extremely troubled by the idea of female independence.
In order to maintain the charade that women aren’t sexual beings while still allowing the men to have sex for pleasure, the community responds to women who display any kind of sexuality by oversexualizing them and excluding them from community life. This is most evident in the case of Anys Goodwin. She is ostracized partly because people fear she is a witch, but also because she is known to have sex without regard to her marital status or anyone else’s, and women fear her effect on their husbands. By blaming her for everyone’s errant sexual impulses, the community is able to uphold restrictive sexual principles while still allowing people (at least men) to transgress them.
However, despite the social premiums on at least appearing to comply with these draconian sexual mores, many female characters embrace sexuality as a means of achieving personal fulfillment and some limited personal agency. When Anna finds out that Anys has been sleeping with her suitor, the tailor George Viccars, she is initially hurt and suspicious. But when she talks to Anys, she admires the openness of her approach to sex. She is enticed by Anys’s frank admissions about her sex life and her insistence that she won’t surrender her “freedom” to become “any man’s chattel.” To Anna, Anys’s sexuality is evidence that she “listens to her own heart rather than having her life ruled by others’ conventions.” While Anna herself is comparatively chaste, sexual desire helps her defeat depression in multiple instances. At the beginning of the novel, she’s been a state of lethargy since her husband’s death, thinking only about getting by rather than what will make her happy. When she considers the possibility of sex with George Viccars, she describes herself as “one who forgets to eat all day until [remembering] she is ravenous.” In other words, her sexual desire helps stir up the strong emotions and zeal for life that have been dormant since Sam’s death. Similarly, Anna’s brief fling with Mompellion dispels the fog of grief into which she descended after her sons’ death. Just as she’s beginning to notice her desire for him, she thinks to herself, “I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive.” In this way, sex reminds her of the possibility not just of fulfilling duties but of achieving happiness.
These characters’ frank sexuality does not lead, as the reader might expect, to romantic happiness. Rather, the sexual encounters in the book almost always promote a woman’s independence or strengthen the emotional bonds between two women. This pattern is most evident through the motif of maternity. According to the patriarchal framework under which Eyam operates, maternity should be a manifestation of female submission to male power. After all, the reason female sexuality has to be suppressed is so that men can feel sure their wives are giving birth to children that are theirs. When men are involved, childbirth inevitably goes wrong; Anna remembers watching a barber surgeon saw apart both her mother and baby sister, while her drunk father looked on. By contrast, with no prior experience Anna and Elinor are able to deliver a breech baby and save the mother’s life, using only their intuition and Anna’s “mother hands.” After this experience, Anna becomes an informal midwife, and all the women prefer to have her assist them in labor instead of a more “qualified” man. In childbirth, women are able to subvert male power.
Anna’s brief happiness with Mompellion is immediately eclipsed by the horrifying realization that, while he’s happy to take advantage of Anna’s sexuality, he has been punishing his wife for her own sexuality for years. After learning of Mompellion’s twisted relationship with his wife and abandoning him, Anna gives birth to one child by Michael Mompellion and gains custody of another, Mrs. Bradford’s. Both children are “illegitimate,” thereby subverting the logic of male property transfer, and both are expressions of love and solidarity between women. Anna prevents Anne Bradford from dying after a male surgeon abandons her, then takes the baby to save it from Colonel Bradford’s wrath. In a particularly poignant scene, Anna assures Anne she will “cherish” the baby as if she were its biological mother. Thus, the love and responsibility for the baby are shared between Elizabeth and Anna, and the actual father becomes irrelevant. Later, Anna names her own daughter Elinor. This choice shows Anna’s continuing devotion to her dead friend, and emphasizes that this friendship was much more important to her than her brief romance with Mompellion. The infant Elinor, whose appearance closes the novel, is a representation of a life-altering female friendship, one in which a man has no place.
As the novel progresses, Anna comes to better understand her own sexuality and subverts the sexual mores of her community, having an extramarital affair and bearing an illegitimate child. However, she also frees herself from dependence on men, leaving her society for one in which she can achieve greater (although still limited) independence. Perhaps paradoxically, for Anna sex doesn’t result in entanglement with men but rather allows her to disentangle herself from the patriarchal forces which have previously dominated her life. Thus, sexuality proves to be a highly liberating and powerful force for women.
Female Sexuality and Friendship ThemeTracker
Female Sexuality and Friendship Quotes in Year of Wonders
There was something in her that could not, or would not, see the distinctions that the world wished to make between weak and strong, between women and men, laborer and lord
Why would I marry? I’m not made to be any man’s chattel. I have my work, which I love. I have my home…but more than these, I have something that very few women can claim: my freedom. I will not lightly surrender it.
“The man who sent it is a well-esteemed physician, and he says it is a remedy much thought of among the Florentine doctors…”
“But what is it?” I asked again.
“It contains a dried toad,” she said. I wept then, even though I knew her intentions were all of the best.
“I have lain with him. Yes! I have lain with the Devil, and he is mighty and cold as ice to the touch. His seed, too, is cold and abundant as a river running between our thighs. For I have not lain with him alone! No! I tell you now, I have seen your wives lie with him! Yours, Brad Hamilton, and yours, John Gordon, and yours too, Martin Highfield!”
That man was a ship’s barber; he pulled teeth and amputated limbs. He knew nothing of women’s bodies. But you do know. You can do this, Anna. Use your mother-hands.
By gathering and sorting my own feelings so, I was finally able to fashion a scale on which I could weigh my father’s nature and find a balance between my disgust for him and an understanding of him; my guilt in the matter of his death against the debt he owed me for the manner of my life.
I was jealous of them both at once. Of him, because Elinor loved him, and I hungered for a greater share of her love than I could ever hope for. And yet I was jealous of her, too; jealous that she was loved by a man as a woman is meant to be loved.
To me, she had become so many things. So many things a servant has no right or reason to imagine that the person they serve will be. Because of her, I had known the warmth of a motherly concern – the concern that my own mother had not lived to show me. Because of her, I had a teacher and was not ignorant and unlettered still.
We live, we live, we live, said the hoofbeats, and the drumming of my pulse answered them. I was alive, and I was young, and I would go on until I found some reason for it. As I rode that morning, smelling the scent of the hoofcrushed heather, feeling the wind needle my face until it tingled, I understood that where Michael Mompellion had been broken by our shared ordeal, in equal measure I had been tempered and made strong.
In lying with him, I had sought to bring her closer to me. I had tried to become her, in every way that I could. Instead, in taking my pleasure from his body, I had stolen from her – stolen what should have been hers, her wedding night.
Why, I wondered, had the surgeon abandoned this case as hopeless? Had he persevered here he could easily have done what I was about to attempt. It came to me then that he must have arrived under instruction to be negligent.